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Casino opponents press Woolwich to say no to OLG

Still weeks away from making a decision whether or not Woolwich is interested in hosting a casino, Woolwich councillors got an emphatic “no” Tuesday night from a small group of residents, many of them familiar faces from the previous gambling debate a decade ago.

Calling themselves Woolwich Concerned Citizens Against Gambling, they asked councillors to take a pass on an Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) proposal that would put the township in the running for a new casino.

The OLG is seeking municipalities willing to host a new facility under its plan to modernize gaming in the province.

Woolwich is part of a newly-created gaming zone, which also includes Kitchener, Waterloo, Wilmot Township and parts of Cambridge and Wellington County. To date, Cambridge is the sole municipality to turn down the offer.

The speakers out January 8 detailed the negatives, largely stressing the ramifications of problem gambling and the resultant social impacts.

For Clint Rohr, accepting a casino in the township would be tantamount to sacrificing people for money. As with some of the others from the group, he said he’d personally pay higher taxes rather than see gambling in Woolwich.

Pointing to the region’s manufacturing history and its universities and colleges, Larry Martin argued that hard work and education build an economy, not luck.

Gambling, he said, is contrary to the community’s values.

“Why engage in an activity that doesn’t support healthy communities?”

Bolstering the arguments made by five delegates from the citizens’ group, Rob Simpson, the former CEO of the Ontario Problem Gaming Research Centre, painted a bleak picture of problem gambling and economic loss.

At a casino with 1,200 slot machines and 55 gaming tables, the OLG would be pulling some $216 million from the economies of Waterloo Region and Guelph each year, he estimated. At a maximum municipal share of five per cent, the township would take in $10.5 million.

For that money, he argued, the township would see harm done to other businesses and to individuals who develop gambling problems.

“My first question is this: Do you think that forfeiting $216 million a year from friends and neighbours in Waterloo Region and Guelph is worth a return of $10.5 million?

“My second question is this: Is inflicting this amount of harm on fellow citizens worth $10.5 million?”

The actual revenue from a casino of the size proposed would likely be lower, with a figure of $4 million having been used. For comparison’s sake, OLG figures show the casino in Brantford, which is smaller but gives some indication of the potential economic impact, has provided the municipality with $46.3 million since it opened in November 1999. In the timeframe, it’s provided wages and benefits to staff – current employment is 880 – worth $459.7 million.

Woolwich’s infrastructure deficit – pegged at $63 million – is likely to play a key role in council’s decision regarding OLG’s offer. In a discussion following presentations by delegates, councillors asked chief administrative officer David Brenneman to come back with a report weighing the pros and cons of the casino option. He’ll be looking at economic development, social impacts, tax implications, and the impacts of existing gaming, among others.

“We have to see all sides of this,” said Mayor Todd Cowan, noting there are already plenty of gambling options available locally, including lotteries. “We can’t ignore the fact that it’s all around us.”

Timing is an issue, as OLG hopes to have potential host communities lined up this winter before soliciting proposals from private-sector businesses interested in developing joint-ventures in willing host municipalities. Only one site will be permitted in each of 29 gaming zones province-wide.

Following the meeting, Brenneman said he expects to be back at council with a report in mid- or late-February.

For township resident Robert Musselman, who though not affiliated with the citizens’ group spoke against the casino, any decision will require more public input.

“There should still be more consultation,” he said in addressing councillors, adding not enough has been done so far.

Thus far, there’s been no discussion of additional public meetings.

Nor has there been any real talk about locations for a potential casino in the township, though Breslau is said to be the most likely spot, given its proximity to Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph.

Dan Kennaley, the township’s director of engineering and planning, noted there’s one location in Woolwich – land in Shantz Station – that would appear to have the necessary designation and zoning already in place to permit the construction of a casino. A second site, in the stockyards area south of St. Jacobs, would likely require a zone change to host such a facility.

A site, if any, would ultimately depend on proposals brought forward by private companies. Before that could happen, however, Woolwich would have to be selected as a desirable spot for investment. And prior to that, council has to decide if it’s even interested in getting in the game.

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